Commentary on the creation of a separate governing board for the UW-Madison while UW-Madison remains within the UW System Administration

[The following article was provided to legislators this week by Dr. Harry Peterson.  It is reproduced here with his permission.  – Ed.]

I understand that there is no significant legislative support to break away the UW-Madison from the UW System and provide the UW-Madison its own governing board.  I have been told that a “compromise” approach would provide a governing board for the UW-Madison and have that university remain in the UW System.

I do not know with whom such a “compromise” would be struck, but, this idea fails badly and is seriously flawed. 

There are two possibilities with such a proposal.  The first possibility is that the UW-Madison board would be advisory.  If this is the case, no legislation is needed.

The UW-Madison has benefited for many years by having advisory boards, usually composed of successful graduates of the University.  Indeed, late last month Chancellor Martin convened a “Summit” of all of the advisory boards  throughout the University.  Over 500 people gathered for lunch at the Kohl Center as part of that meeting.  They represented successful graduates who are advising and supporting all of the schools and colleges at the UW-Madison, including Law, Medicine, Education, Letters and Sciences and Education.  Those 500 people came from around the country as a show of devotion to their university.

The other possibility is that this proposal would provide statutory authority to the UW-Madison governing board to make budget decisions, hire and evaluate the Chancellor, or other important responsibilities.

To have two governing boards for the UW-Madison, the largest, most complicated and important public organization in Wisconsin, would violate every sound practice of management in either the public or the private sector.  It would cause confusion about who was in charge.  It represents the worst aspects of what we see with some committees—if everyone is in charge—no one is in charge.  If no one is in charge no one is accountable.

While there may be some business people who would support such a proposal for the UW-Madison and the UW System, I am confident that none of these individuals would  permit such an unaccountable system for their own organization because it would make it less effective.

If the President of the UW System appears before a legislative committee to explain a System Policy, will members of the legislature find it acceptable if that president says he or she cannot speak for the UW-Madison because the authority has been removed?  (Who would want to be President of the UW System under such an arrangement?)

Administrative and leadership responsibilities are enumerated in the Wisconsin Statutes, Chapter 36.

Board of Regents:  36.09 (1) The primary responsibility for governance of the system shall be vested in the board.

System President:  36.09(2) (a) The president shall be president of all of the faculty and shall be vested with the responsibility of administering the system under board policies… .

Chancellors:  36.09 (3)(a)  The chancellors shall be the executive heads of their respective faculties and institutions and shall be vested with the responsibility of administering board policies under the coordinating direction of the president and be accountable and report to the president and the board on the operation and administration of their institutions.

The responsibilities are clear and unambiguous.  Is the legislature prepared to change these statutes to accommodate a separate governing board within the UW System?

Aims McGuinnes, the nation’s leading expert on higher education systems states that there are at least two states that have boards within system governing boards—and they are having problems.  They are the University of Maine and the University of Utah.

Aims has consulted on this subject with virtually every state over the years:

“Campus boards get really confused about their role:  they soon think that they, not the system board, are the principal governing body and their advocacy is definitely only for their particular campus, not the broader public interest.  It is especially difficult if the major research university campus (with its political power through big-time sports and influential graduates) has a board with major players on it who are appointed and encouraged by the chancellor/president to act like the real governing board and ignore the system.”

In Maine, McGuinness reports, local boards of advisors were established, which McGuinness believes only amplified problems with system cohesion.    He further reports, “ The Utah system campus boards have been a constant source of confusion between their role and that of the Utah Board of Regents.”

If the University of Maine and the University of Utah are having problems, how do their “big-time sports and influential graduates,” compare with the athletic program and the influential graduates at the UW-Madison.  If it is happening in those states, it would happen in Wisconsin.

A review of the governing systems of the Big Ten Universities (plus Penn State University), in detailed materials from the Association of Governing Boards, reveals no such dual governing programs at those universities.  If there are such programs, they are not sufficiently important to appear in the information from AGB.

Aims McGuinness writes:  “In fact, I am quite sure that in none of the systems do the campus executives actually report to the campus boards rather than the system executive.  In other words, the campus boards are strictly advisory on matters delegated by the system board—and the campus executive does not report to the system executive through the campus board.”  (emphasis McGuinness)

Such a system does not exist in the Big Ten.  Where it is in place, in Utah and Maine, there are problems.

Chancellor Martin is seeking a separate board, in exchange for an additional $30 million in budget cuts beyond what her university would receive.  Could any changes that Chancellor Martin propose possibly be worth the loss of $30 million in the UW-Madison base budget, beyond what her university would experience without such a provision?  She has already committed to not increasing tuition beyond the Board of Regents authorized increase.  To recover that $30 million loss would require a $600 million dollar increase in the endowment at the UW Foundation.

If Chancellor Martin wants to appoint a campus-wide  board  to advise her on matters of her choice, such a board would be very consistent with the traditions of the UW-Madison and could be very helpful.

To make any changes to Chapter 36 of the Wisconsin Statutes to divert authority from the UW System and assign it to the UW-Madison would cause confusion and would create a tension between the UW-Madison and the UW System.  Worst of all, it would put it in law.

The result would be confusion and tension and, based on the experience in Utah, increase efforts by the UW-Madison board to compound its authority at the expense of the UW System.

Two systems of higher education were merged in 1971 because there was fighting between those two systems.  In 2011 the legislature could make the pre-merger problems look minor in comparison to changing the statutes to create permanent fighting within the UW System.  There is nothing so damaging as a fight within a family.

Leading and managing 15 universities in our state is a difficult job, done well now by an underappreciated Board of Regents and System.  The legislature should not make it impossible.  There is too much at stake.

Harry Peterson

UW Madison administrator 1978-1990
Chief of Staff, Donna Shalala 1988-1990

President Emeritus
Western State College of Colorado

This entry was posted in State-University Relations, The University Budget, The University System, The UW-Madison Campus. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Commentary on the creation of a separate governing board for the UW-Madison while UW-Madison remains within the UW System Administration

  1. Frank says:

    Are you claiming there is not already fighting within the UW System? If so I highly doubt that claim. Just because it’s not in the newspaper does not meant it does not exist. UWM is always complaining about something.

    Many states seem to work just fine with multiple systems and boards. Actually those with multiple boards and systems far outnumber those wtih a single system. What makes Wisconsin so different? I believe all the neighboring states have multiple boards and/or systems. Are they worse off or having severe infighting??

    As to the University of Utah–well the current head was considered such a smashing success that the University of Washington just hired him away to be its very well paid President. At least the Seattle press and sources in Utah had good things to say. Seems Utah was doing just fine unlike Peterson’s claims.

  2. Frank says:

    Meanwhile the bleeding at UW continues and will rise to a torrent without UW Madison getting something to improve the situation. The UW’s current Board of Regents has proven as useless and feckless as any UW advisory board currently serving the campus. Probably far worse. What exactly have they ever done??

    I thought Sara had just proven everything was just fine. I guess her crystal ball needs some adjusting. Past performance does not guarantee future results. At this time last year nobody saw the train that was coming and spirits were high at UW. The new Chancellor had secured funds to hire more faculty in key areas so as to improve access to popular classes and to rebuild departments hurt by the last faculty exodus a few years earlier. The response was fantastic as was the positive news coverage (except for Sara who grumbled about cost and efficiency and apparently prefers large classes taught by nobodies).

  3. Beans says:


    Some current Madison community members, myself included, are confused about your definition of “bleeding.” Please explain how the departure of 2 faculty members constitutes “bleeding.” The data Sara shows hardly indicates a problem,at least at the university level.

    Also r you truly surprised that faculty are excited when an administrator pledges to hire 80 more professors? Do you make policy decisions based on response, or on what’s good for the institution.

  4. Frank says:

    A few short years ago during the last major series of funding cuts there was a major spike in profs leaving UW for better jobs. That calmed down with the faculty retention pool fudning and introduction of the Madison Initiative and subsequent hiring. The program brought positive feelings about the direction and future of the UW to campus faculty for the first time in around a decade. Now the UW stands at the same precipice it was a few short years ago. I have closely followed the UW fortunes for 30 years and read the entire published history. It is very clear what happens when the faculty feels like the trends are turning too negative–they leave in large numbers.

    No, two people is not all that much to worry about on its face. But if the past is indicative that number will go to 100 or more in a hurry. And that tends to be 100 of the most up and coming younger tenured and near tenure faculty who are at the must productive part of their career. A report published back in 2001 highlighted the issue and many others that the NBP is trying to address. Things have not fundamentally changed and the solutions has been special band-aid programs for faculty stars as Sara also noted (but failed to note there is no such program in the next budget which lead to another spike in turnover–especially given that the privates are much more flush than they were a few years ago in the marjet crash days. Now the have full wallets and will be hunting for more stars. It’s what they do (as do some select wealthy publics)

    “It currently has twice the annual faculty turnover (non-retirement) of the University of
    Michigan, for example. UW-Madison will have to find, attract, and retain the most productive new faculty, as a pro –
    jected 26% of its existing faculty will retire over the next decade. This will require better salaries and better facilities,
    as other universities have learned what it takes to attract the top producers. “

  5. Grant says:


    There might well be a spike in faculty departures, but it might not be for the reasons you state. As a faculty member at UW-Madison for 10 years, I never contemplated leaving before this Spring, despite essentially flat pay since my hiring here from another university. Rather, what has forced me to seriously reconsider my intent to stay there until I retire are the following factors:
    1) The hostile climate toward public education (and public service in general) that has engulfed Wisconsin since Scott Walker took office;
    2) Fears for the security of my retirement, given the propensity of GOP governors everywhere to see state retirement funds as assets to be raided, or at least restructured, in the service of “balancing the budget”;
    3) The general assault on all of the values that attracted me to Wisconsin in the first place, including environmental protection, good government (including rule of law), and effective social services for those who are vulnerable or disadvantaged;
    4) A chancellor who has seemingly made it her goal since arriving her a couple years ago to ram major administrative changes through with apparent contempt for the exceptional UW-Madison tradition of bottom-up governance;
    5) Looming threats to centuries-long traditions of academic freedom and tenure, coupled with the corporatization of universities.

    In fairness, the last of these is occurring everywhere, not just here, which makes me wonder whether I’ll even want to stay in academia at all in a couple years.

  6. Grant says:

    I forgot to add an additional factor:

    6) The disappearance of any reward structure whatsoever for those who continue to do their jobs well, with the SOLE exception of retention packages for those who are willing to play the game of applying to other universities. Nothing has tested my loyalty to UW-Madison more than the perverse notion that one MUST be disloyal in order to be rewarded for working hard in the service of UW-Madison’s mission.

  7. Crazy Harry says:

    Hey, Grant — Reason #6 is exactly why the NBP (or something like it) is needed NOW.

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